I'll start with a couple of personal observations. I've never thought T-Shirt politics actually achieved much, which is why I never “bought the T-shirt”. Also, although I'm perfectly capable of swearing up a storm, I don't see much point in a T-shirt saying “Fuck Abbott” and I'm actually weary of the word “fuck” on T-shirts (yes, that probably makes me a hypocrite of some kind).
However, neither am I completely comfortable with Sarah Burnside's article, here, “Why it's futile to F*ck Abbott” saying in part:
“Arguably the most problematic shirt is the one boasting no foul language at all. It proclaims simply: “Abbott is not my Prime Minister”. Unless you're living in an alternative reality, yes he is. Those of us ideologically opposed to this government need to digest this truth, face the challenges before us, and hold our leaders to account — not close our eyes and believe in fairies.”
(An aside: nearly all political dissent is “futile”. It'll be ignored by the media, blocked by the insiders, won't get enough momentum to have an effect, and the only people who will pay attention will be ASIO, heaven knows why.)
The article was answered at AusOpinion here and I don't propose to discuss whether Abbott is my prime minister, but I do have further thoughts about dissent.
I agree with Ms Burnside's conclusion that “To make a real and radical change in our politics, we need something less stylish than belligerent despair: a commitment to the unfashionable notion of the collective good.”
However: I don't believe in fairies, and I've been around a bit, and it seems to me simplistic to think that dissent might or must or can take one form, agree on one voice, and align behind one vision and leader.
Since it's never happened that way, I don't see any reason to think it will happen in the future.
I'm not splitting hairs merely for the hell of it, here. Buying a T-shirt is different from writing an article, which is different from marching behind a banner, which is different from taking part in the ongoing grind of organising, fielding candidates, fund-raising and the rest.
2. One is not exclusive of the another
Of the quarter-million people that once marched across the Sydney Harbour Bridge on Sorry Day in May 2000, how many continued, organised, did the grind, worked to change the world? A tiny minority, most of which were already schooled, involved, engaged.
The majority of the T-shirt wearers probably are disengaged. And a minority are engaged. It ever was thus.
To think that the person who buys the T-shirt is also incapable of empathy or organisation is to force-fit a very dull template upon the rest of the world.
3. Dissent with one party does not imply affiliation with another
Were I to by a “Fuck Abbott” T-shirt (see above), it doesn't identify me with the ALP. Even before the stupid antics of Kevin Rudd, the clear demonstration that the party has managed to invent a structure in which misbehaviour is rewarded, it had managed to convince me that it wasn't listening to me and cared for me no more than the Liberal party.
I'm not obliged to act in ways that support the ALP's cause. So I'm a fool who wastes his vote? I'd offer as counter-evidence the last parliament: faced with having to work to get consensus, the parliament managed a harder legislative workload than is seen when a self-indulgent dominant party dozes its way through its term.
4. Po-faced politics is a dead loss
There's this habit, as people mature, to suddenly treat every aspect of political discourse with the utmost seriousness, and to wrinkle the nose at the messy, rude or even humorous. I do it myself, sometimes. But I am aware that it's an alienating habit, and I try to stay as loose as I can.
“Stop laughing, this is serious” isn't just alienating. It also debases the discourse, because it demands inappropriate responses. When someone is being small and silly, it doesn't improve the world to treat them as being big and serious.
At its heart, the demand that dissent be expressed in acceptable ways, and should only exist in the context of an acceptably organised Proper Movement – it's just condescending. It assumes that the person who buys the “Fuck Abbott” T-shirt is a rootless bogan, incapable of understanding The Big Picture (in an acceptable context, which generally means “get the ALP back into office”); or is an alienated youth, too jejune to understand that their dissent is pointless.
Or – as is suggested in Sarah Burnside's article – that it's “an embrace of individualism rather than empathy”.
I take strong exception to this: I can't be alone in being able to maintain both anger without surrendering empathy. It's a matter of knowing my enemy.
The impulse to control dissent, to demand that my anger be channeled through someone else's paths: this is also a conservative impulse. It defines politics as the game of the aged insider: “here is the acceptable discourse, here is the right way to do it, trust me, I know.”
To most of the population, the insider's view is smug and comfortable, condescending and alienating, po-faced and joyless. I like to laugh, poke fun, and yell at the TV when some vile seat-warming time-server pretends to tell me what I'm thinking.
Fuck it, I might just buy the T-shirt after all.